1. Production and prices

Oil prices climbed from $65 to $68 a barrel last week largely on strength in the equity markets as some earnings reports beat analysts’ estimates despite being considerably lower than last year.   Worldwide demand for oil, however, remains weak and stockpiles continue to grow. US distillate inventories are now at their highest level in nearly 25 years. The EIA reports that US gasoline demand remains higher than last year despite the precarious state of the economy.

Forecasts on the course of oil prices continue to vary widely with some seeing overproduction leading to $20-30 oil while others talk of an economic rebound taking prices back to $100 a barrel.

The Wall Street Journal reports that OPEC is taking the increase in inventories seriously and is already concerned that prices soon will drop precipitously. There is already talk of an OPEC production cut at the September 9th OPEC meeting. However, given that some OPEC members are unwilling to give up the revenue necessary to meet their quotas, the chances of a further formal production cut six weeks from now do not seem good. The situation could change however if prices should fall rapidly before the OPEC meeting.

2. An Alternative View

In contrast with the conflicting and shifting opinions about the immediate prospects for oil prices, Henry Groppe, 83, who has been following the oil markets for over 50 years, firmly believes that oil prices are climbing, and will continue to climb, because of fundamentals. While speculators may force higher peaks and lower troughs, only fundamentals can set the basic trend in motion.

Groppe believes that actual imports have been running 1.25 to 2 million b/d less than reported in official export statistics and that weekly inventory numbers are unreliable. He further believes that worldwide demand is stronger than generally held and that prices will move towards $100 a barrel later this year. Prices above $90 a barrel would take such a heavy toll on the world’s economy that OPEC would be forced to drive down prices by increasing production.

Should Groppe’s analysis prove correct and the world oil markets are in reality much tighter than official reporting holds, then there is clearly far more serious economic trouble just ahead.

3. China’s Shopping Spree

The publication last week of remarks by China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, that Beijing will continue to use its massive foreign reserves to accelerate acquisitions of foreign properties by state-owned properties, has serious implications for the future of the oil markets. Seven years ago, China’s overseas investment was running at $143 million a year. By last year, this had increased to $40 billion and, with roughly $2 trillion in reserves, investments could increase dramatically.

Beijing, which is becoming heavily dependent on oil imports to maintain its growth, obviously seeks to lock up as great a share of world exports as possible while prices are still relatively affordable. In recent months there have been numerous reports of new Chinese ventures and trade deals in nearly every corner of the world. These range from Russia to the Middle East to Latin America and Africa.

Beijing’s other, and perhaps more important motivation, is to convert its large holdings of US government securities into assets more likely to hold value during periods of inflation and currency devaluations. There is of course considerable risk in such a policy, for unloading foreign securities too rapidly could trigger severe worldwide economic consequences. The Chinese seem to be well aware of these issues and are likely to proceed with caution.

As Beijing contracts for an ever-increasing share of the oil available for export, this drive for energy security is almost certain to lead higher prices and conflicts in the future.

Briefs (clips from recent Peak Oil News dailies are indicated by date and item #)

  • Peak Oil Task Force Report: If San Francisco is to thrive in the 21st century and remain a world-class city, it must begin planning today for how to maintain itself in a post fossil fuel age. A new report lays out the issues and makes recommendations.  (7/22, #14)
  • The number of new offshore oil and gas exploration wells will shrink by about 15 percent in 2009, as lower crude prices curb investments and hit smaller oil and gas producers, according to data from Derrick Petroleum Services. (7/25, #7)
  • The global jackup rig fleet for offshore drilling has grown notably in the last five years. The rig count increased from 387 to 440 and is expected to increase about 60 more this year. However, 2009 expects to be a challenging year. Some jackups will be without contracts for all or part of the year and others planned for construction will not be built. (7/20, #3)
  • Ecuador signed a deal to export crude oil to China for which the Andean country is going to receive $1 billion as an advance payment. The deals could help Ecuador inject liquidity into their economy after oil export revenues fell sharply in the first half of the year. (7/24, #4)
  • Chevron’s long-running environmental dispute in Ecuador resurfaced in late April. The possibility that a local judge may demand damages as high as $27.5 billion – roughly one-fifth of Chevron’s market capitalization – appears to have spooked some investors. (7/24, #9)
  • Iraqi Kurds voted on Saturday in elections expected to keep President Masoud Barzani in power in Kurdistan but the vote is unlikely to erase voter concerns about corruption or end a bitter feud with Baghdad over land and oil. (7/25, #9)
  • In Iraq, doubts remain about the ability of outside oil companies to work safely as U.S. troops withdraw in the coming year and upcoming parliamentary elections threaten more political instability. (7/20, #4)
  • In June Mexican oil output fell below 2.6 million b/d for the first time since 1990 due to the relentless decline of the Cantarell field and maintenance shutdowns. Oil production slid 11.1 percent compared to June 2008 to 2.519 million bpd. Exports of crude were down 12.7 percent at 1.236 million bpd over the same period. (7/25, #10)
  • Mexico registered an unexpected trade deficit in June as a steep decline in the value of crude oil exports and continued weakness in manufacturing exports outweighed the drop in imports. The country tallied a $206 million deficit last month, compared with a $680 million surplus in May and a $236 million surplus in June 2008. (7/24, #8)
  • Nearly 100,000 workers employed by Petroleos de Venezuela and some of its contractors are upset because of overdue pay, delays in renegotiating a new contract and bullying by the government, dissident union leaders say. A possible oil strike looms. (7/24, #6)
  • Leo Drollas, Deputy Director of the London-based Centre for Global Energy Studies said a return of prices to the $147 level is “highly unlikely” for the foreseeable future nor is the price likely to settle below $30 a barrel. He expects prices to remain volatile in the coming period, dipping to a $20 before ranging around a long-term level of $50. (7/23, #3)
  • Oil industry consultant PIRA is the latest to weigh in with its 2010 World Oil Market Forecast. PIRA sees global oil demand rising 1.5 million barrels/day (to 85 million barrels/d) next year as the world’s major economies improve. The International Monetary Fund is now predicting 2.5 percent year-over-year growth in global gross domestic product. (7/21, #4)
  • A Brazilian oil well drilled by Exxon Mobil in the country’s pre-salt offshore fields which showed no sign of oil was “a mistake,” Brazilian Energy Minister Edison Lobao said today. “The dry well occurred because they drilled in the wrong place. There is no risk with the pre-salt.” (7/23, #7) [Editors’ comment: huh?]
  • In Uganda, the 700 million barrels of oil discovered in recent years are sufficient to take care of all the country’s domestic needs. (7/21, #6)
  • China National Offshore Oil Corp, China’s leading liquefied natural gas project developer, aims to raise its LNG receiving capacity by nearly eight times by 2020. (7/20, #11)
  • Russia’s Gazprom may delay development of the giant Shtokman gas condensate field depending on market conditions. (7/21, #15)
  • Occidental Petroleum believes there are between 150 million and 250 million barrels of oil equivalent reserves within an area where Oxy has drilled six wells to delineate a significant discovery in Kern County (CA). (7/23, #11)
  • The number of active US oil and gas rigs climbed to 943, up 23 from the previous week, according to data from Baker Hughes. The number of gas rigs was 675, an increase of 10 rigs from last week, while the oil rig count rose to 257, an increase of 13 rigs. (7/25, #13)
  • The US and Canadian governments have released details of a planned 42-day Arctic Ocean mapping mission as part of the two countries’ efforts to extend their sovereignty over resource-rich areas of the polar seabed. (7/25, #16)
  • India‘s fuel demand is estimated to grow at only 2.4 percent in the current fiscal year — its slowest pace since 2005/06. (7/23, #9)
  • Japan’s oil imports fell in June for an eighth month, and were down 19.1 percent over a year ago, as refiners and power utilities continued production cuts because of the global recession, slashing crude requirements in the world’s second-largest economy. (7/23, #8)
  • The deal to close California‘s $26 billion budget deficit included a plan to drill for offshore oil, drawing allegations that the fiscal crisis was used for a backroom deal following rejection of the idea by state regulators earlier this year. (7/23, #12)
  • The recession has led to great deals on idle ethanol plants.  Their value is at “nickels or dimes on the dollar,” so major oil companies have an opportunity to lock up a portion of their blending needs for biofuels and hedge their overall cost in case the supply becomes tighter in the future. (7/23, #16)
  • Canada‘s oil sands are getting an environmental facelift. They’re not that bad, say a pair of new studies – paid for by a Canadian region heavily invested in oil sands. That’s not because the much-maligned oil sands are getting cleaner (though there’s plenty of scope for that, the reports say). Rather, it’s because newer studies scrutinize more closely the environmental footprint of crude production everywhere else, from Nigeria to Venezuela, which is more energy-intensive than the easy-to-extract oil in Saudi Arabia. In other words, everything’s getting dirtier, so Canada’s oil sands don’t look so bad in comparison. (7/25, #15)
  • Capturing and storing carbon in the ground to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will cost the federal and provincial governments between $1 billion and $3 billion a year, according to a new Alberta report. Carbon storage development is “expensive and currently uneconomic,” with a price tag of between $70 and more than $150 per ton, states the report. (7/25, #17)
  • The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved a $150 million program to research natural-gas powered vehicles. The bill also seeks to improve the reliability and efficiency of natural gas fueling station infrastructure and boost the use of natural gas engines in hybrid vehicles. (7/22, #8) [Editors’ note: there are already 150,000 CNG vehicles operating on US roads.]
  • In Austin (TX), the rising cost of developing new renewable energy sources has pushed new GreenChoice batches of power up in price to where they are now three times more expensive than the standard electricity rate. That reflects the fact that renewable energy costs have climbed by fivefold since 2000. The impact is that the higher renewable energy price adds about $58 a month to the electricity bill of the average home in Austin. (7/22, #16)
  • The US Department of Energy is expected to announce the winning recipients of $2/4 billion in grants to foster a domestic automotive battery industry. Will the lithium-ion battery be the winner?  If so, consider that the major sources of lithium will be China, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, and that peak lithium is a legitimate concern. (7/24, #17)
  • Although no-one has ever publicly confirmed seeing an EESU in operation, a battery being developed by the stealth Texas company  EEStor, these devices have the potential to disruptively leapfrog lithium-ion batteries for electric cars.  A production prototype EESU may be delivered to Zenn Motors-electric car developers-by then end of 2009. (7/21, #20)
  • Over the last few decades, quiet game-changers-such as use of large trucks in the oil sands, state-of-the-art LNG transportation, and fracking to unlock shale gas-are energy producers’ best response to the “peak oil” alarmists who predict an imminent, irreversible decline in global oil and gas production. Shipping solar electricity from megaprojects in North Africa to Europe, and adding smart grid technology, could be the next game changers, not the lack of oil  (7/21, #17) [Editors’ note: time is short.]
  • Pakistanis took to the streets of Karachi to protest a record power outage in the nation’s largest city lasting more than 42 hours.  Protesters stoned the offices of the local electricity provider and burning tires. (7/20, #6)

Quote of the Week

  • “This week’s rally has been primarily based on bubbling sentiment that the economy will recover. Some of the earnings this week point to a recovery. The oil-market fundamental picture, though, isn’t looking supportive.”

— Gene McGillian, an analyst/broker at Tradition Energy

Energy Stat of the Week

  • Non-Opec producer Oman‘s average oil production increased by 6.9% year on year, to 789,800 b/d in the first five months of the year. The Gulf state wants to produce 800,000 b/d this year, up from 757,000 b/d in 2008. Oman’s output peaked at 956,000 bpd in 2001 and has been declining due to depleted fields.